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Witness for the Prosecution

Kino // Unrated // July 22, 2014
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted July 14, 2014 | E-mail the Author

Tightly paced and supremely entertaining, Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957) belongs in the highest tier of courtroom classics alongside the likes of 12 Angry Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Anatomy of a Murder, to name a few. Loaded with clever twists and turns, top-notch performances, and more than enough humor to balance out the drama, it's held up extremely well over the years and remains one of the celebrated director's best works. Adapted from Agatha Christie's eponymous 1925 short story and 1955 play, this tale of crime and punishment establishes a trio of magnetic lead characters that anchor the story with ease, allowing the mystery to unfold at a steady pace and (hopefully) pull the wool over first-time viewers. But even if newcomers predict the infamous ending or, of course, you've seen it enough to remember every fork in the road, Witness for the Prosecution remains impressive after multiple viewings.

The spoiler-free story goes like this: wealthy widow Emily French (Norma Varden) has been murdered in her home. Our prime suspect is Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), a handsome salesman who befriended her and was later named a chief beneficiary in her will. Naturally, Leonard professes innocence and his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) backs up his story; this leads both of them to the office of barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton), who reluctantly agrees to take the case after a recent heart attack and hospital stay. The abrasive Wilfrid has established a near-flawless track record over the years, and it's not long before he attempts to put the puzzle pieces together himself...especially after speaking with Christine, who was conveniently rescued from war-torn Germany through her marriage to Leonard.

Not surprisingly, the court case itself dominates Witness for the Prosecution, both in running time and effectiveness. Surprises pile up as separate witnesses are called, from Emily's plucky maid Janet McKenzie (Una O'Connor) to arresting officer Chief Inspector Hearne (Philip Tonge) and, of course, the Voles themselves. But events outside the courtroom prove memorable in their own right, from the comical bickering between Wilfrid and his private nurse Miss Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester, Laughton's long-time wife) to a late third-act meeting with a mysterious, Cockney-accented informant. Several flashbacks provide a nice change of scenery as well, showing us the Voles' first encounter with one another and Leonard's fast friendship with Emily, among others. Still, what most folks will remember most about Witness for the Prosecution is its ending, a Hail Mary that not only works perfectly, but explains earlier moments that first-time viewers might assume to be moments of flagrant over-acting. In other words, just about everything still holds up quite well.

During the last 15 years or so, Witness for the Prosecution has been woefully mishandled on home video. MGM released a barebones, non-anamorphic DVD back in 2001 and re-issued the same disc two years later as part of a Wilder boxed set, which left many fans hoping for a more substantial edition in the near future. Kino Lorber has finally stepped up to the plate to bring Witness for the Prosecution to Blu-ray as part of their new "Studio Classics" line, along with Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Blu-ray review forthcoming by Stuart Galbraith IV) and others. This is by no means a definitive disc, but I'd imagine most die-hard fans will just be happy to have this courtroom classic in high definition.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

No matter the film's original aspect ratio, this 1.66:1, 1080p transfer looks quite strong with a few mild reservations. Many sources indicate the original framing to be 1.85:1, and 1.37:1 was on its way out several years before its theatrical run...but either way, I'm happy with the film's pleasing compositions. Though a handful of scenes are of slightly less quality (whether suffering from mild softness and/or lack of fine detail), the large majority of Witness for the Prosecution is crisp and loaded with strong textures. Black levels are also solid, while even indoor scenes with limited light don't fare too badly. Perhaps the only room for improvement---aside from those softness issues, which may even stem from the source material---is the slightly lower-than-average bitrate afforded the main feature, as it's presented on a single-layer disc. Either way, what's here is largely impressive and fans of classic cinema should be pleased.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent this Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.

Not surprisingly, the DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio track, presented in the original mono, is more than capable despite the limited source material. Witness for the Prosecution is obviously a dialogue-driven production and, although mixed a little low for my ears, is still intelligible and holds up nicely at higher volumes. Music cues, background noise and other effects are balanced nicely without fighting for attention. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles or captions have been included during the main feature, but I had very little trouble deciphering all but the most pronounced regional accents. Even so, it's incredibly rare for any prominent release to omit such a feature, especially considering its higher price point.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Kino's static menu interface only offers separate options for chapter selection, movie playback and bonus features, though it loads fast and features only the bare minimum or pre-show logos and other distractions. This Region "A" one-disc release is housed in a standard blue keepcase and includes a promotional insert and matching slipcover.

Bonus Features

Not very much, unfortunately. The main attraction is a brief Interview Segment with Billy Wilder, who alternately speaks fluent English, French, and German during this six-minute piece. It goes into modest detail about the film's background and production...but it's obviously part of a larger (and mostly unrelated) whole, as it practically gets cut off mid-sentence before it really gets going. Wilder remains his usual interesting self, though, so long-time fans will still enjoy it. A Trailer for the film is also included but, like modern ones, it pretty much spells out everything and leaves us hanging right before the climax. Optional English subtitles are included during the interview for translation purposes only.

Final Thoughts

Many classics, dramatic or otherwise, remain important to cinematic history but have lost some of their luster over time. Witness for the Prosecution, however, remains entertaining and enjoyable from start to finish, whether you know the twists and turns by heart or if it's your first trip through the wringer. Based on Agatha Christie's hit London play and featuring top-tier performances throughout, this perfectly paced production unravels at a good clip and still has plenty of gas in the tank for its unforgettable ending. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray offers a capable but not perfect A/V presentation, though the lack of more substantial extras is this disc's only real disappointment. Still, those who own MGM's 2001 non-anamorphic DVD won't regret the upgrade and new fans should find plenty to enjoy as well. Firmly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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